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The “Mighty Macs” and Title IX: They never foresaw their impact on women’s athletics

The first of the three national championships, before the NCAA recognized them

… a simple sentence and some tireless young women

These young women were playing basketball at school that could care less about athletics, a small Catholic school that was concerned about raising young women in the faith that they held dear.

However, history intervened and a single sentence in an obscure law provided them with a role that they could never have perceived 50 years ago.

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Title IX of the Secondary School Act, Educational Amendments of 1972

However, four months prior to President Richard Nixon signing the Education Act legislation, the team eventually known as the Mighty Macs won their first of three consecutive national championships.

This championship, though, will not be found in the annals of the NCAA, which had relegated women to the sidelines in competitive sports.

The marvels of Immaculata basketball

That aggregation of young women accomplished so much that they are now affectionately referred to as the Mighty Macs because of their accomplishments on the court. They now stand as a symbol of the elevation of women in society, entering the realm of athletics that had previously been reserved exclusively for men,

The history and achievements that made famous this Chester County campus of fewer than 1,800 undergraduates and less than 380 acres — this place of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, this place of a mighty and revolutionary athletic tradition and a diligent Catholic one, this modest little place – are kept as fresh and vibrant as possible. The gym even has bleachers now.

It did not in the spring of 1972, 50 years ago, when Immaculata initiated the modern era of women’s college basketball by winning the first of its three consecutive national championships — the first three official national championships in the sport. Cathy Rush, who was the team’s coach then and is a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member now, and several of her players returned for a reunion last week, a Friday luncheon giving them an opportunity to reconnect, reminisce, and contemplate again a story that stands alone in basketball.

That story, their story, was born of a unique confluence of people, circumstances, religious values, and basketball culture. That first championship, on March 19, 1972, predated Title IX; President Richard Nixon wouldn’t sign it into law for another three months.

Mike Sielski, “Forever Mighty,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 24, 2022

Title IX intended to ensure equality

What was the intent of Title IX, a law ironically elevated into the national discourse by men in a Republican Party that is decidedly not in favor of equality, either with gender or race? Those two men were Sen. Birch Bayh, who would be considered to be called a RINO today, an actual liberal in a party that was just starting to turn its Southern Strategy into one that is decidedly not based on equality.

And Richard Nixon, who just four days before signing the legislation into law, had authorized the break-in of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate, a scandal that would end his presidency.

Nixon did some good things in his years, and this was one of them.

The law is meant to ensure equity between men and women in education, and it’s broad, covering most K-12 schools and colleges and universities, as well as vocational schools, libraries and museums. That means it applies to tens of millions of students, as well as educators.

The law applies to several areas of education: athletics, the classroom, sexual assault and violence on campus, employment, discrimination, admissions, retaliation and even financial assistance with tuition.

Collin Binkley and Erica Hunzinger, “What is Title IX and what impact

has it had?” Associated Press, June 20, 2022

The true effect of Title IX

After the passage of this amendment, opportunities for women in athletics exploded across the country, from the grade school programs to high school to college — and eventually to the WNBA. Suddenly, women were important in college athletics, and this has made tremendous impact into the 21st Century,


In so many ways, and at the K-12 and powerful collegiate levels. Women’s and men’s teams are to be treated equally under the law, and schools should look to expand the opportunities for women to play sports.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that each sport will have exactly the same budget for equipment, facilities, travel or meals. For example, the women’s tennis team might have more money put toward racquets than the men’s tennis team. Athletic departments work under what is known as “equal in effect,” meaning a benefit for a men’s or women’s team in one area can be offset in another area as long as “the overall effects of any differences is negligible.”

In the hopes of ensuring compliance with Title IX, each athletic department at a college or university must provide annual Equity in Athletics Data Analysis reports. These track participation, coaching staff and salaries, revenues and expenses, including recruiting and game-day expenses.

Collin Binkley and Erica Hunzinger, Associated Press, June 20, 2022

Immaculata was hardly an athletic bastion

The small college spent little on athletics, and they had little in the way of money spent on their quest for recognition in athletics. To understand their battle for respectability, watch the movie “The Mighty Macs” that was produced in 2009. It features Carla Gugino in the role of Coach Cathy Rush, and it portrays the impediments that faced these young women as they battled to make their team respectable.

These were not scholarship athletes, although three of the coaches achieved recognition in the field during their professional lives,

Most of the players hailed from Philadelphia’s adjacent towns and suburbs, Delaware County in particular. Their uniforms were light-blue tunics with wide white collars. Three of them — Theresa Shank Grentz, Rene Muth Portland, Marianne Stanley — went on to become accomplished coaches themselves. The school’s fieldhouse had burned down in 1967. The athletic department sold toothbrushes to raise money so the team could travel.

The sisters and students banged buckets and lids to show their support — the “Bucket Brigade,” they were called. The team’s nickname — the Mighty Macs — was coined by George Heaslip, a sportswriter for the Daily Local in West Chester. There was a book about them in 2003 and a movie about them in 2009, and the ‘72-74 teams were inducted collectively into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2014.

All for an all-women’s college — Immaculata attained university status in 2002 and began admitting men in 2005 — that had just 800 undergraduates at the time.

“How many schools around here,” asked Karen Matweychuk, Immaculata Class of ‘83 and the university’s director of alumni relations, “had a movie made about them?”

Mike Sielski, Inquirer, March 24, 2022

Today, they are hall of famers and idolized, but then, women’s college athletics were not on an elevated level.

Therese Shank Grentz, a native of Spangler, Pa., shooting for the Macs

Irony: High schools in Philly had started basketball earlier than college

On the high school level, girl’s sports had started in the 1960s and had become popular. Many of these players had experience the thrill of playing in high school, but their collegiate experience was a different world,

As high school players, most of them had experienced the thrill of packing the Palestra for big games in the Philadelphia Catholic League: Archbishop Prendergast garnet-and-gray on one side, Cardinal O’Hara navy on the other, the power of a single-sex education revealed once the women moved on to and beyond Immaculata. There were no men or men’s teams to compete with for attention and resources. The athletes were more than athletes; they were presidents of their classes and captains of their teams.

Mike Sielski, Inquirer, March 24, 2022

Major difference between women and men in NCAA sports

The players on the Mighty Macs were not just athletes. They were outstanding students and leaders, unlike so many of their male counterparts,

“At an all-girls school, every leader is a woman,” Rush said. “That has importance, also. We were in games where there was almost no doubt that we were going to win. You had a sense of ‘Been there, done that. We’ve got this.’

“You look at the women on this team, and what they’ve ended up doing: doctors, dentists, lawyers. It’s just amazing that this was a part of their life, but it wasn’t their whole life. Everybody looks at Theresa and Rene and Marianne, who ended up coaching basketball. But I had one girl who’s now a pediatric cardiac transplant specialist. I can hardly say it, let alone understand what she does. It’s unfathomable. You bring all of that together, and you’re not going to win every game, but your chances are pretty darned good.”

Mike Sielski, Inquirer, March 24, 2022

Cheap — sort of like most Catholic programs

Immaculate had no money for sports, so when they hired Cathy Rush to coach their team, her credentials were not the major factor in that decision,

Rush, who had previously coached junior high and high school basketball and whose husband then, Ed, was an NBA referee, was under no illusions about why Immaculata had hired her. She was young, and she came cheap.

She was 24, and her annual salary as the college’s head coach was $450. The words prime time had no place in women’s basketball then. You wanted to see the Macs? Clear your schedule for 3 p.m. on a Monday. Oh, and if you were driving to the game and had room in your car, could you maybe take one of the players? No team bus for them. They carpooled.

Mike Sielski, Inquirer, March 24, 2022

Mighty Macs return to campus in 1972 after winning national title

I coached in a Catholic college in the 1970s and 80s, and believe me, I know cheap. However, we at least had enough to spend on a team bus.

That, however, was football, and a men’s sport.

I did not ruin the movie. To understand their story, look up the movie online. It can be streamed very easily.

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